Benchmarking: How to produce more olive than 8T/ha in an olive grove

Each and every grower in the industry has different results in their grove. Why, when olive trees are so hardy? And why are some making a decent profit, while others are struggling to meet costs?

The motivation for most growers is either lifestyle or commercial production and you need to determine which side of the fence you sit on. If you are in commercial production read on, make notes and then put them into action. If you have a lifestyle property, you’ll probably find this interesting as a comparison with your current situation.

Viability

With traditional olive growing, according to olive expert Marcelo Berlanda, a grove should be aiming for 8T/ha to be viable. A very well-run grove would be aiming to push the benchmark to 10T/ha and, if you’ve done everything absolutely right, with the best varieties and grove management practices, you should be able to push the benchmark up to 12T/ha.  That sounds like a very high aim, but it is possible.

Why managing an olive grove can cost you lots more than necessary?

In grove management, decisions are made every day. But have you asked yourself whether they’re the right ones? Every decision you make in your grove costs you money and the hope is that you will reap the rewards with a flood of oil or an abundance of table fruit. However, for many groves in Australia & New Zealand this is not the case.

I’d like to look at some of the reasons and compare with the benchmarks.

Why do hardy olives need water

Olive trees are comparatively drought-tolerant and usually, a tree will survive on very little water.  To achieve good, consistent cropping rates, however, water is mandatory! In fact, it is the number one factor in achieving a viable crop. It is increasingly being discovered, however, that many groves aren’t equipped with the minimum requirement of 3ML/ha and some have many more trees than they are equipped to handle in terms of water. The end result is that, while you might have nice looking trees, the reality of cropping to any decent level is fairly minimal.

In this circumstance, you may need to re-plan and re-prioritise what your grove needs. This may mean looking after only a portion of your grove at the optimum level or even taking part of your grove out. We don’t suggest pulling trees out willy-nilly but it may be part of the consideration mix and a practical management decision for the long-term benefit of your grove and business. To help identify the best way forward, get some professional advice from a specialist olive consultant.

Spend the money 

Growers often don’t act on advice, however, because they are not prepared to spend the money on their grove to turn it around. The bottom line is that in any business you need to spend money to make money. To bring a low-functioning grove up to where it should be will entail increased costs for watering, inputs, spray regimes and pruning, just to name a few. But without making those changes you will find nil or minimal crop returns. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!

The same goes with equipment. While good tools can be expensive, they’ll save you money in the long-term through improved efficiencies and reduced labour costs.

Improve existing usage

We also find that some growers have great existing infrastructure on their groves which they are not utilising to its full extent. Fertigation and irrigation systems are common examples. Before you make any costly changes, take a good look at your property and infrastructure, and see if you can increase your efficiency with what you’ve already got.

Crop returns: what’s acceptable?

I’ve had reports from some growers that parts of their groves have not yielded any returns for 10 years. That’s a long time. Let’s look at what is financially acceptable in terms of overall crop returns.  As a general rule in farming, it’s acceptable to lose a crop in one out of every five years. If you haven’t produced anything for two to three years, you have a problem.

Once identified, it should take two years to sort out any major issues. After this time you should get a consistent crop if you have the correct amount of water and grove management practices in place.

Should I prune?

We often hear of growers who have pruned their trees heavily and set production back. The question is, was this necessary? Pruning in the correct way can actually increase your yield if done correctly. Once again, the right advice is paramount and can save “or make“ you money in the long-run.

Act now!!

If you notice a pest or something strange happening with your trees, chances are it is not going to go away by itself, or quickly. In fact, a severe pest infestation can take two full seasons to correct. The best advice here is to ensure you monitor and sort out any issues as soon as possible, so the problem doesn’t get out of hand. Best practice is always to deal with the problem before it escalates, while it is minimal (and cheaper) to fix.

Test for quality

In a recent grower survey, we found that over 36% of respondents don’t test their oil quality. Yet almost every grower in the industry labels their product as EVOO. Whether it’s verification for consumers or if something were to go wrong somewhere down the line, the certificate of quality from the lab is like having an insurance policy in place. The importance and value of testing cannot be stressed enough: even the most basic tests can be used to verify that your product meets the quality mark.

Knowledge is power

We all want to see a viable and successful local olive Industry, yet the average Australian or NZ boutique grove seems to be well under the acceptable benchmarks. If your results are not what you expected, the costs needed to correct the scenario in terms of production levels and possible returns may not be that great especially if you act now. Look at how you compare to the benchmarks. Is there something that can be worked on this year?

And if you’re not sure how to go about it, get some advice and then act on it. Because when it comes to finding answers to problems, it’s not about what you know, it’s about what you don’t know.

Checklist for successful grove management

  • review your current practices
  • ask questions, and get answers from reputable parties (there are more professed experts than actual experts)
  • make or update your business plan
  • identify your budget
  • prioritise your plan, particularly in terms of expenditure
  • concentrate on the best performing areas
  • test to verify your labels are correct
  • use the right tools for the task at hand, and spend the money on good ones
  • act fast: don’t wait till a problem becomes a big one

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